Many a world leader has come to the United Nations to give a mealy-mouthed speech or issue a vague declaration. Delegates understood they could remain awake at their discretion.
The action was different, and riveting, Tuesday at the U.N. when President Donald Trump lit into North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, using what we now recognize to be Trump’s trademark vocabulary of shock and audaciousness.
“Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” Trump said, mocking Kim and sounding more like a professional wrestler than a president.
Trump’s language was blunt and cavalier to the point of seeming unhinged. But it wasn’t erratic or dangerous. His message was extreme, yet calibrated to reinforce his administration’s policy that North Korea faces grave consequences should it threaten the United States, South Korea or Japan with nuclear warheads or ballistic missiles.
In fact, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis held an impromptu news conference Monday to deliver a similar warning, though he used more nuanced language. It was almost as if Mattis wanted to balance Trump’s bluster by getting ahead of it with some good solid Pentagon whispering.
What Mattis said, according to The New York Times, was that the U.S. has military options to deal with North Korea that would not put Seoul at risk of being destroyed. Was he talking about cyberwarfare? A bombing campaign? Targeted assassination? Mattis wouldn’t say.
Mattis did say he felt diplomacy and sanctions were putting pressure on Kim’s regime, thus suggesting those avenues should be pursued. He also said that while North Korea had test-fired missiles over Japan, the regime had been careful not to provoke the U.S. “Were (missiles) to be aimed at Guam, or U.S. territory,” Mattis said, “that would elicit a different response.”
Hmm, quite a muted comment. But would anyone doubt the Pentagon chief’s resolve, or what “a different response” means?
Contrast those words with Trump on Tuesday, and the president’s screed benefits from Mattis’ shading. The two are rightly aligned on strategy: Bring North Korea to heel peacefully, if possible, but make clear the United States would respond to any attack with overwhelming force. The president’s sharp language may be remembered by diplomats the way Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev’s shoe-waving at the U.N. in 1960 entered the lore of crazy U.N. rants. But really, on Tuesday in New York this was Trump was being Trump:
The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That's what the United Nations is all about.
Eight months into this presidency, we know the elements of Trump’s style. A lot of the bluster is distasteful and embarrassing, especially his personal attacks on Twitter. They alienate and distract. Some of his behavior does real damage to the country: Trump failed a leadership test by failing to call out white supremacy at Charlottesville, Va. No, we don’t want to raise our children to act like this president. But Trump holds many responsibilities, paramount among them: keeping this nation safe. North Korea is a vexing and potentially lethal foe. The Kim family of dictators has frustrated efforts by the last three presidents to draw North Korea from its dangerous isolation. Where President Barack Obama unfortunately chose to disengage from North Korean talks through a policy of so-called “strategic patience,” Trump must act with strong resolve. Kim has forced the issue; North Korea continues to test missiles, and it is believed to have produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside intercontinental ballistic missiles.
We don’t know if Trump will be the fourth American leader to fail, or the one who figures out how to contain North Korea or conclude the standoff. We can predict, at least, that Trump will not keep mum; he will, as he did Tuesday, alert the world to what America can and would do. Maybe that approach helps to get the right message across to Kim.